Saturday’s events during morning workouts at Gulfstream Park have weighed heavily on mind. It is always tough to lose a horse, but Saturday was particularly tough because four horses were injured and three had to be euthanized. Since then, I have been researching morning workout practices and picking the brains of those whose track side knowledge greatly exceeds mine. I have not yet actually been to a racetrack to watch morning workouts. I have no physical connections to the industry, having no jockeys, trainers, breeders, etc. in my family. Everything I know, I have learned for myself through reading, research, observation, and constantly asking questions. I am truly a student of the sport, but I had never put much thought into how morning workouts operated. In light of the losses suffered this past weekend and the losses and injuries suffered throughout the course of 2011, I researched the issue and am ready to share what I learned and what conclusions I made.
As far as actual rules are concerned, there really are not that many and those that exist are straightforward and simple. No galloping on the inside rail, which is reserved for breezers only. No galloping the wrong way; you can jog the wrong way on the outside rail only. The number of horses that can gallop upsides together is limited, typically to three.
Those are the rules, but there is some track etiquette to go along with the rules. When galloping and passing other horses ahead of you, go to the inside because the inside is for speed. Not observing this particular rule of etiquette can be dangerous. Passing a horse to the outside can surprise a horse, resulting in the slower horse shying or ducking away. That is how horses and people get hurt. In addition to this, it is common courtesy to tell someone that you are coming by telling the other rider “inside” or “coming by.” Announcing your presence can ease the surprise and possibly prevent accidents.
After Saturday morning’s accidents, in an interview with the Daily Racing Form's Mike Welsch, Peter Walder, who trains Force Freeze, said, “I don’t think what happened this morning was the fault of the racetrack. I feel it was more a matter of too many people working and pushing their horses to go today.” That may be so, but there is no denying that the track has been lightning fast since the meet began on December 3. There are several factors that contribute to how a track plays, including composition and weather.
Gulfstream Park’s website reports that the racing surface soil cushion depth ranges from 3 5/8 inches to 4 inches. Gulfstream is what is known as a one-layer track, a track that is composed of one type of material that is homogenous throughout. Rather than having a solid base, it has a compressed pad of about four inches with a cushion on top of it that is roughly the same depth. With a one-layer track, harrows can cut deep then compress and re-cut the cushion to a specified depth. By comparison, as stated by a report issued by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in January of 2011, the Oaklawn total track depth is 17 inches and is composed of 88% sand, 7% silt, and 5% clay. As a two-layer track, only about the top quarter is the actual racing surface, with the rest comprising the base. The Oaklawn track is very similar to that of Saratoga which is roughly 88% sand, 8% silt, and 4% clay. Saratoga’s average surface depth is between four and four and half inches. That extra half inch is a contributing factor to why both Oaklawn and Saratoga tend to run deeper and slower than Gulfstream or Santa Anita. Santa Anita recently reverted back to a dirt track after trying synthetics. After the old track was removed, the native soil base was compacted, and the new base material was added at an average thickness of 7 inches. On top of that, 10 inches of cushion blend was added. Two new track records were set on opening day after the installation of the new surface. Trainer Doug O’Neill described the new track as “fast but not hard.” Trainer Kathy Walsh said, “The horses seem to glide over it. I talked to some (other) trainers….Overall, it’s the happiest I’ve seen one group of people in a long time, and it’s rare to have that many people on the same page about one issue.”
The track composition is only one contributing factor and can be aided or hindered by the weather. Oaklawn, for example, runs into the issue of freezing during the winter, and track maintenance has to work incredibly hard to preserve the track and ensure that it is fit for racing. Gulfstream has an entirely separate problem. Florida, like many other southern states, is prone to drought, and hot, dry conditions will bake a track and make it lightning fast. Adding moisture to the surface relieves that issue, but adding more moisture is not always a viable option when there are water shortages. From looking at both weather and track data, I have come to the conclusion that drought conditions added to a shallower than usual track depth have combined to cause Gulfstream’s track surface to run fast. But what does the track conditions have to do with the morning workout accidents on Saturday? A lot actually.
Even though Walder felt that Saturday’s accidents were not the fault of the track, I have concluded that he was not entirely correct. After speaking with jockey Whitney Valls, I got a better feel for how morning workouts actually work. Aside from the aforementioned rules, there are not any guidelines regulating the number of horses on the track at one time. Valls stated, “There really aren’t any rules regulating the number of horses that can be on the track at one time during training. There’s no set time horses are or aren’t allowed to work. I’ve gone out in a set of 5 right after the break which is usually the busiest time to work because the track is fresh, and 5 is only from one barn and doesn’t include the other 29 barns that are also sending horses out. It falls on the jockey/exercise rider to time it right so they don’t end up working too fast or too far/short because their horse hooked up with someone else’s. You have to give everyone else enough time to gallop to their respective pole, break, and get far enough into their work so you can work yours without compromising anything.” Valls went on to state that scheduling workouts is impossible and that it falls on the riders to look out for one another. Having so many horses on the track at one time compounded with a harder, faster surface puts undue pressure on the horses’ legs. For most horses this is not a problem, but, as we saw this past weekend, it can be catastrophic for others.
It seems to me that morning workouts fall into the “controlled chaos” category. Big tracks like Gulfstream typically house hundreds of horses during meets, so Valls made an excellent point concerning the likelihood of actually scheduling morning workouts. But what if you could? In the scenario that I am envisioning, morning workouts would be scheduled so that only a certain amount of horses could be on the track at one time. Even though there are hundreds of horses in the barns, not all of them work each day. I propose limiting workouts to 15-20 horses at the time, the same number of horses that typically run in the Kentucky Derby, with time slots of about 15-20 minutes. Such an idea works in theory, but in practice it would never work. As Valls pointed out, each horse might not work every day, but most horses do train every day.
On Horse Racing Nation’s Facebook page, a user commented on the link to one of my previous blogs suggesting adding more dirt to the track to slow it down. This idea is probably more feasible, but the problem here is that a renovation of that sort would probably not be able to take place during the meet. Of course, the track would not have to be completely renovated, but the process of adding more dirt and cushion to the surface involves more than just moving dirt. The directors of racing surfaces take their job quite seriously. Racing surface mixtures are important calculations, and a lot of testing and calculating goes into getting the surface just right. So adding more cushion to the track is not a simple process by any means. Additionally, Gulfstream was just recently renovated, so yet another renovation seems like it would be out of the question. However, if another renovation were possible, I think making over the track in the same manner as Santa Anita would be beneficial. The surface has been working great, and horsemen appear to be pleased with it. Gulfstream and Santa Anita have similar climates, so I could see the two-layer track approach working quite well for the Hallandale track.
Without really being able to always control the number of horses on the track or the track surface, perhaps it is the people we should look to in order to ensure the safety of the horses. From my research and my conversation with Ms. Valls, I have learned that there are riders on the track that do not always observe protocol and etiquette. Just like in a race, there can be infractions during morning training. With that being the case, perhaps training infractions should be handled in a similar fashion to race day infractions. As with races, sometimes events occur in which the rider has no control over. A few examples that come to mind are the Here Comes Frazier accident during the Bourbon Stakes and the Giant Oak accident at Hawthorne. Both horses were injured as the result of being spooked or being run into by another horse that had spooked. That is one thing, but riders who ignore track protocol are another thing entirely. Jockeys that commit an infraction during a race are suspended and/or fined. Maybe training sessions should be approached in much the same way. Accidents happen, but sometimes they can be prevented. No measure would ever keep every single horse safe, but by continually striving to improve the industry and safety measures, we can try to keep most of them as safe as possible.
Ultimately, conditions will never be completely ideal. There is not an umbrella answer for all track problems. Accidents do and will happen, and sometimes little can be done to prevent them. A lot has been said about racing surfaces in recent years, particularly in light of the Eight Belles tragedy; but, when it comes right down to it, all we can really do is just be constantly vigilant. Such a statement puts me in danger of sounding a lot like Mad Eye Moody, but he was right in saying that constant vigilance keeps us on our guard. Knowing the track and always being aware of what is going on around you is the best answer.
*Special thanks goes out to Whitney Valls, Brian Zipse, Garnet Barnsdale, Wesley White, Don Chatlos, and Derek Simon for answering a host of questions.